AKITA TEMPERAMENT, PAGE
Any dog in its relationship with other dogs and with people fits onto
a scale of what is most often called "dominance behavior." At the upper
end is the dog that does what he wants when he wants and enforces his
will if he is thwarted--the alpha, the most dominant dog. At the lower
end is the dog that seems to have no ego strength at all-the omega or
most submissive one.
Perhaps this component of behavior is better viewed as acceptance of
authority. Many people want strong, brave Akitas and are afraid that
a submissive dog will be everyone's doormat. In fact, the relationships
formed between dogs themselves and between dogs and humans are very
complex and very fluid, subject to change depending on circumstances.
Also important to understanding the significance of such measures is
the character of the breed itself. A dominant Rottweiler is a very different
dog from a dominant Papillon. A submissive Akita is not the same
thing as a submissive Chihuahua.
The Pack Incorporated
The roots of dominance
behavior are found in the dynamics of the pack, the social unit into
which canines organize themselves. Observations of naturalists have
given us great insight into how the pack functions. These have been
done in the wild on wolves and coyotes and in academic settings, on
They show us an organization that in many ways is analogous to one
of our corporations. At the top is the pack leader, the CEO. He is responsible
for the welfare of the group and charged with its protection. His perks
are commensurate with his responsibility. He gets first pick of
the food and gets as much as he wants. Everyone looks up to him and
curries his favor. Unless a corporate takeover is in the works, no one
challenges his authority in the slightest way.
At the bottom of the corporate ladder is the fellow who has virtually
no status, either personally or as a result of his position He's the
step-n-fetchit for anyone who gives him an order. While the CEO may
have a genuine liking for this guy and may even share the table with
him once in a while, you can bet the rest of the group will have very
little social interaction with such a low-status individual.
In fact, among the lower-status members is an element of contentment.
They know their place and keep it. Friction occurs most frequently in
the middle and upper management individuals. Always trying to move up
the ladder means exchanging places with someone else, so they may well
scrap and squabble. Too serious a fight might draw the attention of
the CEO, however, so fights are more to intimidate than to damage.
If the head honcho does intervene, his discipline is quick, sure, and
accepted by the offending parties.
The Pack At Home
When dogs move in with
humans, they interact with other animals and with humans in much the
same way as with a group of other dogs. Their sense of where they belong
in a hierarchy is finely tuned. They have no trouble assessing their
proper position in the group and quickly move to occupy it.
Problems arise when the position of the dog is at odds with the other
members of the group. For instance, suppose the dog lives with a couple.
The husband is very strong but the wife is a shy, non-assertive person.
When the wife is home alone, the dog is very protective of her. He remains
positioned between her and any visitors and maintains a watchful posture.
One day, a coworker, who is a more dominant person, comes over. He is
leery of the dog, and the wife decides to put the dog in another room.
When she takes his collar and starts leading him out, the dog growls
at her. She lets go, makes apologies to the friend, and they both leave
Several weeks later, a similar circumstance arises. The wife
is thoroughly aggravated with the dog and decides to make her point.
She takes his collar and begins leading him out of the room. When he
growls at her, she yells at him. He jumps up and bites her in the face.
An alternative scenario, given the same relationships, is that the
wife opens the door and admits the friend. The dog stands between them
and displays some hostile body language that makes the friend wary.
He asks her to leave if she can't put the dog up. She moves around the
dog, standing next to the visitor. As they are walking out the door,
the dog attacks the stranger.
Is this a vicious dog, turning on its owner or engaging in an unprovoked
attack? While it may appear so, in the first case, the dog is carrying
out what it perceives as its responsibilities as an assistant pack leader.
When the husband is gone, that mantle falls upon the dog, and nothing
the people have done makes the dog think otherwise. He does not approve
of the wife's decision to take him out of the room, since he will then
be unable to protect her from what he considers a threat, so he tells
her he does not approve of her actions by growling. Her acceptance of
his authority confirms his judgment. When she leaves with the stranger,
however, his authority is defied and he is worried about her safety.
The next time she tries to take him out, several factors come into
play. He knows she can circumvent him because she did it last time and
he is worried about her. She is his responsibility. He growls at her,
but she does not let go. This is a challenge to his authority. His subsequent
bite is discipline delivered by a higher status individual to a lower-status
one who is transgressing. These bites are almost always delivered to
the face because that is how a disciplinary bite is delivered between
With another couple, the husband is a mild personality and the wife
is more assertive, Both are showing the dog; however, when the husband
shows him, the dog often growls at the judge. He never does this with
Again, the dog is acting as a protector of a lower-status member of
his pack. His inclination to do so is reinforced by the husband's body
language. He leans down next to the dog and frequently puts his head
level with the dog's in a gesture of what he thinks is affection, but
what the dog perceives as submission. Because he knows the dog is likely
to growl the man has become very anxious in the ring. The poor dog senses
this anxiety and incorrectly interprets the approach of the stranger
as the cause, thus reinforcing his decision to warn this person away.
Curing these problems can be relatively simple. In the latter case,
the husband developed a more assertive posture with the dog after reading
a book about dominance behavior. He quit bending over, never kissed
the dog again, and corrected him firmly when the dog growled. In short,
he moved up the social ladder to a position above the dog, so the dog
was no longer obliged to protect him.
In the former case, the dog and the wife went through several obedience
classes where she firmly established control over the dog. They developed
a routine for meeting and dealing with visitors and strangers. Instead
of regarding the dog as her husband's major inconvenience, she has developed
a deep rapport with him. They love and respect each other.
A more serious case involved some particularly peculiar behavior of
the family pet around one of the middle children, a nine-year old boy.
While the child sat on the floor watching tv, the dog brought his chew-toy
over and dropped it near the child. Then, he circled the child and watched
sharply. When the child reached for the toy, the dog growled and snatched
it up. Correctly alarmed, the mother returned the dog to the breeder.
Clearly, like the middle management of the corporation, the dog considered
itself only slightly above this particular child in the family hierarchy
and perceived the child as a threat to his position in the group. His
opinions were probably confirmed by some of the actions of the child,
such as sitting on the floor. His actions with the toy were a way for
him to enforce his higher status. Had the dog not been removed, the
situation would surely have escalated and the child might have been
Fortunately, a fairly
reliable method of testing young dogs to determine how willingly they
accept authority has come out of all the research on dog behavior. Originally
developed for guide dog organizations to aid in selection of promising
youngsters, these tests are valid for other applications as well. Information
about the PAT or PET (Puppy Aptitude Test, Puppy Evaluation Tests) is
available from many sources. Gail Fisher and Wendy Volhard published
a long article in the March, 1979, and in the 1985 AKC Gazettes on administering
and interpreting the test. Mrs. Volhard also sells a pamphlet and score
sheet which you can obtain by writing her at: RD 1, Box 518, Phoenix,
NY 13135, (315) 593-6115. Running a web search with the keywords
"Puppy Temperament Evaluation Form" will turn up locations
for copies of the forms.
PATs are usually done initially at around seven weeks. Puppies are
born with an immature brain which should be fully functional at about
this time. The first administration should be indicative of the puppy's
natural tendencies before his environment has had much impact. Subsequent
tests will show changes because of outside influences. Tests are given
in an area new to the puppy and by a stranger.
The first section of the test deals with social attraction and dominance
measures, and you can use these yourself to select a puppy with an appropriate
temperament for you even if no testing has been done on the puppies
you are looking at.
First, the puppy should be removed from his littermates and observed
in a room or area away from them. You want to see how the puppy interacts
with people, not with other dogs, and how he interacts with you.
Quick Puppy Evaluation
First, sit on
the floor and call him in a friendly voice. If he comes to you, notice
whether his tail is up and wagging or tucked. Does he come willingly
or slowly and reluctantly? Don't give up if the puppy wanders
around exploring first or doesn't immediately respond to you. If he
doesn't come to you, go get him and talk gently to him and pet him for
a few seconds.
Next, get up and walk around slowly, talking cheerfully to the puppy.
Watch what he does. If he follows you, see where he positions himself
and how he carries his tail.
These measures of social attraction are followed by two measures of
dominance and a third test which indicates the puppy's reaction to them.
Sit back down on the floor and gently roll the puppy over on his back.
Place your hand across his chest, then restrain him and observe his
reaction, After about 20 seconds, let the puppy up. Bend your face down
to his, gently stroke his back and talk to him. See what he does.
Last, pick the puppy up by placing your hands on either side of his
chest behind his legs. Interlace your fingers together to provide support
for his ribs and let him hang in the air. Again, observe his reactions.
Responses to the Testing
not usually strongly attracted to strangers, so their behaviors on the
social interaction tests have a wide range. Some do not come at all
and will not follow the tester. This does not mean they are hopelessly
anti-social. Such behavior reflects instead a strongly independent nature.
More typical for the breed in my experience is a puppy that first busies
himself exploring the area, looking around and sniffing. This is probably
a displacement activity, a face-saving advantage which gives him something
to do while he makes up his mind. After a few minutes of this, most
will "suddenly" notice your calling them or your walking around and
they will come or begin following you
How they come and what they do when they get there tells you something
about the puppy. So does how they follow. If the puppy approaches and/or
follows with his tail down and the ears held back slightly, you are
witnessing a submissive response. The average puppy approaches the tester
with his tail up. Confidence in meeting a stranger is indicated by his
demeanor and by a wagging tail. The more assertive puppies will paw
at your hands or even your face and the most assertive will bite at
When they follow, average puppies walk along beside you. As they move
up the scale in assertiveness, they will get between your feet, wandering
purposely through them and may even paw at your feet or bite at your
shoes. Less social puppies may balk at the come but warm up to the tester
by the time he is walking about. Again, tail down and/or ears back are
the more submissive indicators.
Most of the Akita puppies I have tested are mildly attracted socially.
That is, they go to the tester, either with tail up or down after some
exploratory behavior. They may greet the person and immediately wander
off. They may follow for a few steps and then drift off to explore.
Little holds their interest strongly.
Many of the herding breeds I've tested are put off by the strange surroundings.
They seem, however, positively thrilled to see a person, even though
they don't know him, and bound over to the tester. In contrast, we've
had Akitas who have resolutely refused to participate. None of them
grew up to be intransigent monsters, but they were very independent
dogs. They were not eager to meet strangers but tolerated them.
Turned on their back, most Akitas lie still, carefully looking away
to avoid any hint of eye contact. This is a submissive response and
very acceptable. Others lie still for a second, then struggle briefly
before calming again. These might glance quickly at your face, but as
soon as they see you are looking at them, they deliberately look away.
This is a moderate response, indicating a slightly more assertive dog
but well within acceptable parameters.
Akita puppies lifted in the air invariably just hang there. Their bodies
are usually relaxed, although they might be stiff. More assertive responses
on these tests range from flailing and struggling to whining, pawing,
and biting. A very assertive puppy may also make eye contact,
The middle test tells you something about the puppy's acceptance of
correction and willingness to forgive. As you might expect, many Akitas
are less than enthusiastic about undergoing unpleasant experiences and
are not apt to easily forgive the responsible agent. With no real attachment
to the tester, many Akita puppies just stalk off. Others remain with
the tester but stare off into space. A few of the more forgiving will
nuzzle the tester's hands. Assertive responses include pawing
or biting at the tester's face and hands.
Selecting a Puppy
Choosing the right
puppy requires a frank assessment of not only your personality but that
of the others in your household, too. Pick a dog that suits the personality
of the least dominant person in your family. That too runs on a scale.
The least dominant person in my family is well able to handle a mildly
dominant Akita. We are all very assertive. My sister-in-law, however,
is just able to hold her own with my brother's old Akita, who is a medium-tough
dog. Any harder temperament, and she'd be the looser in a contest of
A medium puppy might be appropriate for the family with three brash
youngsters but not for the one with two girls who hide behind their
mother through the whole interview. An unforgiving puppy is not a good
choice for the former; he may not be tolerant of rough play that accidentally
hurts. The latter is probably better off with the most submissive female.
Breeders who avail themselves of the PAT have a very useful tool for
placing puppies appropriately. If you are fortunate enough to find one,
heed her advice. These tests have no pass or fail, good dog or bad.
They are helpful in assessing the native character of a puppy and in
suggesting where best to place him and how best to work with him.
For instance, all puppies will need some sort of correction and an
unforgiving one must learn to accept it in a good spirit. Owners of
a less-forgiving puppy should be encouraged to find a training class
with positive training methods. Force-training is not only ineffective
with this type of dog but may well sour him on training altogether.
A very independent puppy makes a poor candidate for a home where no
one is at home during the day or where he is left outside most of the
time. These dogs are capable of getting along on their own and may not
bond well or at all to members of the family. When one of them comes
out and finds the dog digging in the flower bed and tries to issue a
correction, the result may be aggression on the part of the dog. Even
mild Akitas do not take well to corrections from strangers.
Of the Akitas I have observed, the vast majority show medium to extreme
submissiveness on the PAT. They also show a strong tendency towards
independence and some tendency to resent unpleasantness. I personally
tested a litter where all the dogs scored in the medium to upper ranges
on the entire temperament test. While this would be great for a German
Shepherd, my experiences since have made me very cautious with such
dogs. Two of this litter attacked people, the other was with a very
active, very assertive family who loved him dearly but kept him well
in hand. He was their beloved pet until his death at ten.
If I had an Akita puppy that tested as very assertive (biting hands,
etc.), I would have serious reservations about him. I certainly would
repeat the test several times and would be ultra careful about his placement,
making sure that the new owners were able to handle such a dog. Certainly,
I would be less likely to be concerned with a female that showed dominant
tendencies than a male. While some breeds have little difference in
temperament between sexes, I don't believe this is true for Akitas.
An adult male Akita is just tougher than his female counterpart.
The Dominant Dog
Life with a dominant
dog is recounted briefly in the Nov/Dec, 1986, Akita World centerfold
by Leslie Bair describing Ch Fukumoto's Ashibaya Kuma, CD, ROM. On his
first day at their house as a six-month old puppy, Leslie "awoke to
find Kuma's imposing muzzle about two inches from my face and two dark,
unfathomable eyes staring at me. We stayed that way for what seemed
like an eternity, then he clicked his teeth several times, turned around
and trotted out of the room as if dismissing me." She goes on to say
that "no one ever really owned him." His place in the family was undisputed,
but he wielded his authority with great dignity.
Families can accommodate to such a dog in two ways. The family can
respect the dog's decisions or be so much more dominant than he is that
the dog recognizes their authority and respects them. In between lies
nothing but trouble.
On the other hand, this dog is easier to accommodate than the dog that
is jumped up to a dominant position when he is truly not an alpha dog,
an example of the Peter Principle in action. The dog has reached
its level of incompetence. In these households, the dog have moved
into a power vacuum which is created by his interpretation of his human
Really alpha dogs, like the CEO, don't have to keep reminding everyone
of their position. It's obvious. Beta and delta dogs pushed
into the alpha position often lack the appropriate tools for maintaining
their position, so they resort to bullying. If recognized soon
enough, these dogs can be demoted back to a place in the pack where
they are more comfortable with their role. Left too late, they
can be so entrenched in their position, they can't give it up easily.
If a PAT is not available,
you should try to do your own testing on the puppy to determine how
dominant he is. Other clues to his temperament can help you make your
assessment. The puppy that runs out first to greet visitors is the most
dominant puppy, not necessarily the friendliest. Put a chew toy in the
litter box and see which dogs end up with it. Dominant dogs eat first
and get their pick.
Puppies in a pen will run up for attention. The more dominant puppy
will step on the head or push away the less dominant one. When they
are very small and sleep in a pile, the more dominant puppies are on
When you were a kid did you play "look-away", where you and a friend
stared intensely at each other, and the first to look away lost? With
dogs, this is not a game. Eye-to-eye contact is a challenge. If your
puppy or dog locks eyes with you, he is issuing one, and he'd better
look away first or you're in trouble.
Again, dominance is relative to the social structure in which the dog
finds itself. The terror of litter x may be the milquetoast of litter
Y. In fact, one of the best ways to deal with a bully puppy is to put
him in with an older dog or more assertive litter where he gets a quick
lesson in manners and humility.
In your own family, a dog that gets to big for his britches may need
to be taken down a peg or two. This can be accomplished with careful
attention to dominance body language and dominance behaviors by all
the members of the family. (Note: Please read the follow-up
article on this Website, Temperament
Revisited for help here.)
Again a little attention to things from a dog's point of view will
help you and your family member understand how the dog interprets your
behavior. You can read about dog behavior and body language in
a number of excellent books such as Mother Knows Best, Alphabetizing
Your Dog, Culture Clash, and The Dog Who Loved Too Much,
but the best is Turid Rugas's On Talking With Dogs: Calming Signals.
These are available at dog shows from vendors, can be ordered through
your local bookstore, may be at your library or can be ordered online
One caution I would add is that I wouldn't use an alpha roll unless
you have a very dominant puppy and then only until you get a handle
on him. You can provoke a dog into a hostile response doing this,
and with an adult Akita, you can both end up in dire straits!
Whenever you set out to make a point with a dog, when you decide THIS
IS IT!, you have to make sure you've picked a battle you can win.
Otherwise, you have to find another way to deal with the dog.
Fortunately many approaches are available to solve problems and the
best are usually the ones that are the least confrontational.
Akita lore tells us that the dogs acted as babysitters while the mothers
worked in the fields, Do you believe this? I didn't until I got the
dog I'll call Babe. At eight weeks, she left her breeder who did have
small children and spent the next two years in a childless environment.
I picked her up at a show. At a rest area on the way home, she was squatting
taking care of her business as I looked out at the park, when a toddler
seized her from behind. Hugging her, he put his head up against her
spine. I was so alarmed, I was frozen to my spot and could only watch
as she gently turned her head and gave him a big lick. Lucky me and
Later on another trip, I walked by a statue of a man and child sitting
on a park bench. The sun was behind them, so they appeared in silhouette
to me and were so lifelike, I thought they were real. So did Babe. She
trotted right up to the child and stood there wagging her tail. Then
she did a double-take and sniffed the child statue, sniffed the adult,
then tried another wag. When this didn't make them move, she gave up
and walked off.
After these experiences, I started watching Akitas around small children,
especially at shows. My observations convinced me that in its finest
expression, Akita temperament should include a natural affinity for
children. Retrievers like balls and sticks, pointers will freeze when
shown a bird wing, and Akitas should be attracted to children.
I've seen many Akitas change their whole demeanor in the presence of
a child. They wear an ingratiating, very non-threatening expression
and may well try to accompany the child if it wanders away. This attraction
is very different from the protectiveness of guarding and herding dogs.
It is a genuine liking for our small folk even if they are strangers
and can occur with dogs that are none too fond of the large ones. It
also seems independent of the dog's exposure to children, although in
adult dogs unfamiliar with them it may not appear instantly.
Liking children is very important in our breed because when Akitas
do bite, the victim is quite likely to be a child. Also, because of
the size of the dog, if a child is bitten, the damage is likely to be
severe. Akitas, especially males, are very aware of status and, in addition,
are rather independent in nature. Dogs with a special regard for children
are less likely to see them as threats and more likely to tolerate from
them what they will not tolerate from an adult.
Again, I am reminded of the centerfold on Ashibaya Kuma. Leslie Bair
says, "[M]y daughter, Heidi, was four...when she walked across the living
room past the slumbering Kuma. His tranquility disturbed, Kuma growled
at the source of the irritation. An equally independent and unafraid
female toddler walked up ... reached over grabbing this powerful head
in her tiny hands and before I could move, lifting the head and slamming
it down on the floor, and saying `shut up.' I was frozen
..Kuma, though not in the least harmed, was stunned, and made a visibly
conscious decision. Mutual respect was established and each went
their own way."
In the same vein, when my younger daughter was about ten, I asked her
to put our three-year old male in his run while I talked with some people
interested in Akitas. The wife had just asked me how the breed was with
children when I noticed Meredith and Bart were having a "meeting of
the minds!" Not wanting to go back to his run, Bart had planted his
120 pounds into a sit and was steadfastly resisting the tugs of his
Meredith picked up a metal food pan which happened to be close at hand
and whacked him on the side of his head with it. "Come on, Bart," she
demanded. He looked at her with an appraising glance, then, literally
shrugged his shoulders and followed her off to my complete surprise.
While he is a rather easy-going dog, I honestly don't know if he would
have tolerated this treatment from my husband, for instance, who has
little if anything to do with the dogs.
Like retrieving, I believe this is an inherited component of temperament.
I feel so strongly about this that I will not breed any Akita that does
not like children. I also try to ensure it is a component of any breeding
partners I select. If you don't have children, you may not feel so strongly
about this. However, you should at least try to never double up on dogs
that do not like them. You may have none, but puppies that you sell
may well be around children all of their lives even if your dogs are